Sustainable Abstraction in East Anglia

Closes 31 Oct 2025

Opened 2 Nov 2023


The Environment Agency is England’s environmental regulator, and it is its duty to ensure that water supplies are sustainable for the future. If no action is taken now, many areas of England will face water shortages by 2050, as water demand from people, industry and agriculture will exceed water availability in many parts of the country.

The Environment Agency’s Restoring Sustainable Abstraction (RSA) programme has returned 49 billion litres of water a year to the environment through hundreds of licence changes made across England and it was under this programme that, in 2010, the Environment Agency began an investigation into the Ant Broads and Marshes Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in East Anglia.

Licence Changes in Ant Broads and Marshes (Ant Valley)

Our investigation into the Ant Broads and Marshes SSSI has been driven primarily by the requirements of the UK’s Habitats Regulations and falls within the broader scope of the environmental improvements set out in the joint Environment Agency (EA)/Defra Water Abstraction Plan 2017. The Ant Broads & Marshes RSA investigation forms part of our ongoing work with water companies, farmers, landowners and businesses to ensure that the environment is protected for the future.

In June 2021, following a detailed investigation focussing on SSSIs in the Ant Valley, the Environment Agency shared its outcomes and licence change proposals to affected licence holders and interested stakeholders. This investigation confirmed that abstraction of water is causing long term damage to protected sites, ecology, and wildlife in the Ant Valley, and, after several years of consultation with all interested parties, the Environment Agency concluded that it needed to revoke, refuse, or constrain abstraction licences to protect the SSSIs.

The Ant Valley is home to over 350 priority species of plants, insects and birds and is particularly special as it provides the range of habitats needed for all these species: fens, open water and the margins of broads and pools, reedbeds, wet grassland and wet woodland. 

Upon implementation, this will bring abstraction in this area back to sustainable levels and return up to three billion litres of water to the environment each year, benefiting a wide range of plants, invertebrates, fish, birds, and other animals.

Changes to abstraction licences are at the centre of its work to protect and restore water resources within the Ant Valley. These changes mean that farmers and local businesses will be required to develop alternative and more sustainable sources of water, rather than take it from rivers, lakes or groundwater.

Currently, the licence change programme is focused on a variety of different licence types and/or applications:

Permanent Licences

Permanent licences have no expiry date and will run in perpetuity unless the applicant applies to make changes or the Environment Agency propose to change it. Between 31 January and 2 March 2023, the Environment Agency served notice of their proposals to change permanent abstraction licences using its powers under Section 52 of the Water Resources Act 1991.

The Environment Agency appreciates that businesses need time to adjust and so all changes and revocations of permanent licences will become effective in October 2024, to provide sufficient time for affected licence holders to prepare and seek alternative water supplies where necessary. 

New Authorisations Applications

The Water Resources (Transitional Provisions) Regulations 2017 or ‘New Authorisations’ regulations came into force on 1 January 2018, meaning that previously exempt abstractions require an abstraction licence. These previously exempt activities include trickle irrigation, dewatering mines, and abstracting water into and between internal drainage districts, amongst others. ​​​​​​​​

All New Authorisations applications received in the Ant Valley catchment were determined based upon the findings of the RSA investigation in June 2021. All applications, including those which were refused, were determined on or before 30 June 2023.

Time Limited Renewals

Most abstraction licences have a time limit and licence holders must apply to the Environment Agency to renew their licence upon expiry.

We have determined applications to vary or renew previously expired time limited abstraction licences by the deadline of 31 October 2023. We have determined all the applications where we have been technically able to do so. Any abstraction must be environmentally sustainable and there are a small number of these applications that will need refusing or curtailing, with licence holders being informed of this decision back in June 2021. 

Determining TLL applications by the end of October 2023 should allow sufficient time for any appeals process to take place and the process to be concluded by 1 October 2024. This is to ensure that the objective for achieving sustainable abstraction in Ant Broads and Marshes mirrors the timescales for changes being made to permanent licences. 

Progress of Ant Valley Licence Changes

As mentioned above, in 2023, the Environment Agency served notice of proposals to change permanent abstraction licences, using their powers under s52 of the Water Resources Act 1991. The Environment Agency also made decisions to refuse applications for previously exempt abstractions (New Authorisations) and applications to renew existing time limited licences (TLLs).

These proposals and decisions led to objections and appeals from licence holders and these will be heard at a public inquiry.

Both the Environment Agency and the appellants have recently submitted statements of case to the Planning Inspectorate who is co-ordinating the inquiry on behalf of the Secretary of State. The inquiry itself will begin on 14 May 2024 in Norwich and is expected to last four weeks.

Other Abstraction Licence Applications

The Environment Agency continues to apply the principles from the RSA investigation to all applications and pre-applications within the Ant Valley. This includes applications for new licences (mainly new reservoir water in the winter) and those to vary existing licences.

The Broads SAC Sustainable Abstraction Plan

Following the outcome of a judicial review in September 2022, the Environment Agency produced the ‘Broads Sustainable Abstraction Plan’, outlining how it proposes to extend our investigation in the Ant Valley into the impacts of abstraction to all other parts of The Broads Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The methodology for the assessment will be like that used for the Ant Valley which was established following extensive consultation and agreement with Natural England. All licences within the Broads SAC will be assessed and may be changed following these investigations. SSSIs will be grouped according to river catchment starting with the Bure and the Thurne and then the Yare and the Waveney. 

Based on the currently available evidence, it is not possible to confirm what change(s) will be needed on individual licences until the investigation is complete.

In line with previous investigations, examples of the licence changes which could be required include:

  • reducing the daily or annual abstraction limit
  • adding or increasing a ‘hands-off flow’ (HOF) restriction to the licence which is designed to protect river life at times of low flow
  • adding a fish screen to the licence
  • revoking (cancelling) a licence

The Environment Agency is unable to provide any more information on what this means for individual licences now but will contact those directly affected once the information and evidence becomes available following the outcome of our investigation. 

The Environment Agency will work with licence holders directly affected to identify any alternative solutions to secure sustainable access to water.


The delivery of the work in the Ant Valley and the Broads SAC is being led by the Environment Agency’s Sustainable Abstraction Project Team with support from key stakeholders including Natural England.


  • All water abstractors
  • Environment Agency customers
  • Local authorities
  • Environmental bodies
  • Land owners
  • Water companies
  • Members of the public
  • Environment Agency colleagues


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  • Water resources
  • Habitats and wildlife
  • Specific projects, issues, or activity pages